Montessori, in The Absorbent Mind, Chapters 22 and 23 describes how society goes through an embryonic phase which we can follow by observing the development of small children, who, little by little children become aware of forming a working community, they come to be contributing members of a group. They are directed by an unconscious power and a social spirit which creates a tendency to socialise, Montessori calls this, ‘cohesion in the social unit’. Social integration has occurred when the individual identifies herself with the group to which she belongs, this integration must be cultivated in the schools and children in a Montessori school live in an active community. She defines social life as the solving of social problems, displaying behaviours and aims which are acceptable to all.
The child’s task between the age of three and six is to adapt her personality to her time, place and culture. Society is made up of individuals, for a healthy society, individuals need to have strongly constructed personalities and the ability to bring their strengths to society. When the child joins the Casa she needs to practice being part of a wider group, while continuing with her individual construction. The mix of ages allows younger children to learn explanations from developed older ones and their close experience allows them to communicate with greater ease and sympathy than an adult to a child, with a ‘mutual exchange of spiritual energy’.
The child chooses to respect the work of others if this is the reality she finds in her daily experienced, there is only one of each material so they must be cared for and waited for and shared patiently. She knows the work is challenging and so respects the other’s concentration. Being sociable involves harmonises oneself with the group. Rather than giving moral lessons, she experiences these as facts. Opportunities to talk, share, more and care for the environment and people within it are given. Social development occurs because of the freedom to act in the prepared environment. It is not engineered or demanded, with social issues arising spontaneously and naturally, they have real meaning and context and must be solved. The child comes to realise her actions have real implications and she is responsible for the rest of the group. Children spontaneously offer help to those who are less able and need help, they have an instinct for social progress.
Society is defined as ‘an ordered and interdependent community according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The natural unfolding of personal and evolutionary society requires a prepared environment and a group of diverse individuals, especially in terms of age. The orientation towards society is one of the most striking changes between the first and second plane. In The Child, Society and the World, p.22 Montessori describes the school becoming a society, when men are together they are in a society, the difficulties of social adaptation are not easily overcome, but children have a social sense like a gift, cohesion is natural to them, it is normal for children to be in contact with each other with reciprocal help, they show respect for and interest in each other. There is admiration between the children and not envy when children have reached this age they are not destructive.
In the first plane, children are ego-centric, they are focused on their own construction, intellectually, physically and psychologically, they are attached to the family and immediate environment. While second plane children are extroverted and social-centred, they build themselves as members of society, they ring their personality to a social unit and act on behalf of the wider group to which they now belong. Elementary children are interested in how society works, while three-year-old polishes for her own construction the seven-year-old will do so for her community. In both planes, the mixed age group and participating in the full cycle of social development is important each child should experience being the youngest, in the middle and maturing to being the oldest. Grace and Courtesy exercises at both levels give the children techniques and social independence, in the Elementary it involves skills related to going out, queuing, speaking to adults.
The Elementary class and Casa need access to each other, Elementary children wish to assist younger children and experience their society, they also need to understand the society of adults to know why it is so, who benefits from it and they feel sympathy towards those who suffer injustices. The children wish to know about past changes in society and if it can be changed in the future. They wish to learn how adult society works and like to emulate it, this makes them susceptible to advertising, children need to be part of the group and yet not subsumed by it, it is important that a balance is maintained as they orient their personality to the group. As the example to children in wider society is not helpful extra efforts need to be given explicit help at this stage, using their interest in what is fair, their reasoning and imagination to help them to solve social problems as they arise. The child is a child of her society, which is why we present peoples and their achievements positively, appealing to the child sense of idealism and uses their tendency towards ‘hero worship’.
Parents need help understanding that children in the Second Plane are being pushed by natural laws to reach a new level of independence and development, so they gain a balanced view, able to see the child’s preference of the peers over them not as a rejection but as an exploration. Parents need to establish what ‘reasonable choice’ is, so that they have the knowledge of support from the family and permission to use this confidence to pursue the goals of this plane. Humans have the tendencies to work and associate with others, to be gregarious, this has lead us as a species to form groups and live within them. Nature has given children in the second plane of development an urge to look for opportunities to practice the skills and techniques which they will need later on to adapt to adult society. Societies often pass through a hierarchical phase and children of the second plane are interested in hierarchies and splitting functions into different roles. The success of the child’s adaptation to adulthood during the third plane of adolescence is determined by the child’s ability in the second plane to socialise.
Children have an intense desire to move from the family and teacher in a ‘bid for freedom’, they form peer groups in which they express their personal and group identify in the behaviour, opinions and dress. For the older child, it is the opinions of her peers that matters. We respect this deeply felt need and use it as both an opportunity for them to learn intellectually together and emotionally it gives an opportunity to genuinely work to solve the problems with the children. This helps to give the children empathy, through imagination and reason which they might not be getting elsewhere. The children need their peers to feel comfortable, they enjoy sharing and trading their belongings and feelings, while they spurn adults who show too much overt affection. Sharing food and belongings is an important part of ‘social exchange’. After the age of ten children begin to prepare for the individualism of adolescence, while those between seven and ten demand great loyalty, making up rules and laws, codes, language and symbols and engage in ritualistic behaviour for admittance into their secretive peer groups. This can be positive or negative, Montessori thought that the Boy Scout Movement could give second plane children a positive experience as it calls for a freely given commitment from the individual.
In the Montessori environment, we recognise social development when we see children choose to co-exist with a group of like-minded individuals united for a common aim. When children do this they form small groups by themselves, in these groups children practice being members of society and the adult need not join the children’s group. Behaviour directed to the destruction of the group deviates as the child has an overwhelming need to be together, isolation at this point will create problems later, it leads to emotional upset, reducing intellectual activity and interest which hinders the child’s understanding. The desire to be together is part of a strong need, we support this by using the mixed age group, the prepared environment and giving free choice. The older children will exhibit ease in working together, dividing work into tasks and giving roles, overcoming problems together, engaging in games which call for obeying even demanding rules. They are able to give practical help and to organise aspects of daily school life, distributing messages, helping in the Casa. A task done alone may be difficult but become interesting when done with others.
The difference between Casa and Elementary is project work, research work is given on keys given in Elementary presentations. The work should call for collaboration and co-operation. The expectation is that children will behave responsibly. Adult expectations can be high because here children are developing according to the natural laws. Individual work is given to developing the individual skills children need to work as members of a group, for example, a child works individually with the large frame to have the skills to use the chequerboard as a group. If they all have the individual skills it is often possible to show a small group a presentation so they can work together.
In the first plane, attachment is critical for survival, this develops in the second half of the first plane into life in a ‘community in embryo’ or a ‘society of love’ to do this the child enters the Casa. In the second plane the child enters into wider society, ‘a community of association’ and work where they naturally and easily co-operate with each other. In the third plane, children enter into a society of adults, hopefully with a desire to choose to adapt positively to the adult world because of the positive presentation of the adult world at Elementary. Here the Erdkinder prepare for adult life in the fourth plane.